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   by Jacob Solomon

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Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom… "You know all about our troubles in the past… Please let us pass through your land… we will not stray from the main highway… and we will purchase our water from you…" Edom replied "No passage [through my lands] - lest I will come out and fight you with the sword"… Thus Edom refused to let the Israelites travel through his lands, and Israel turned away from him (20:14-21).

The Sfat Emet pays special attention to the phrasing of the king of Edom's refusal of passage: "lest (Hebrew, pen) I will come out and fight you with the sword", instead of the more likely "if you approach, I will come out and fight you". He suggests that the word pen was not that he was planning to attack the Israelites at that moment, but that that vital knowledge gleaned from their passage would give them advantage in any war between them in the future. In making their way through Edomite territory (what today is mountainous southern Jordan) they would learn the detailed geography of the area, something of great advantage to the military commander.

In reply, the Israelites said that they would "keep to the highway" (20:19), but Edom was not convinced. He wanted nothing to do with the Israelites. From his point of view, granting passage now might well be bitterly paid-for later.

In support of that explanation, the nation of Edom is identified with Jacob's brother Esau: "Esau, he is Edom" (Gen. 36:8). Indeed, after Esau made peace with Jacob: "Esau ran out to Jacob to meet him and he embraced him…" (Gen. 33:4), Jacob made a tactful excuse to part company with Esau. And later on, Esau reciprocated with:

"Esau took all his family and property… from Canaan, because of his brother Jacob. For their combined property (including animals) was more than land could support. Thus Esau settled down in the region of Mount Seir. Esau, he is Edom" (Gen. 36:6-8).

Underlying this is an important feature in human relationships - whether or not preceded with a quarrel. And it can happen in families as well - even when there is no history of hostilities. On one side the Torah does emphasize: "You shall love your fellow like yourself" (Lev. 19:18). However, it does not say that you must interact with every one. It implicitly accepts that there are some people we just don't fit in with. We feel awkward in meeting them in synagogue, work, family, and social occasions, and - ve-hamaskil yavin - even a brief conversation puts you on edge and once it's over, you feel as though you've just come out of an unpleasant traffic accident. The reality is that every person is created differently, and it doesn't seem possible for many - probably most - people to warm to everyone they come across. And that can even happen within one's close family. And how much more so when there had been a life-threatening quarrel (Gen. 27:41) in the background.

Indeed, in such a situation, the best you can do is to observe "You shall love your fellow like yourself" is to wish the person well in your heart, do nothing to hurt him or her, but being practical - keep out the way as getting involved will bring out the worst of both parties.

This principle may explain Edom's reluctance to let the Israelites pass through his land. Even though the Children of Israel were prohibited to do anything that might harass "their, brothers, the children of Esau" (Deut. 2:4-5) en route to the Promised Land, the Edomites believed - understandably perhaps - that any interaction with the Israelites would cause considerable awkwardness at the very least. They knew - as did Esau of old - that the only way they could peacefully co-exist was to keep away from each other.

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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